What will LeBron's game look like in Miami?

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Let’s play a game. Forget that LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat via an hour-long ESPN special was one of the biggest PR disasters in recent memory. Forget everything about how James’ choice to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami rather than stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago or New Jersey represented him taking “the easy way out.” Forget about how some of LeBron’s lackluster performances in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals caused people to question if he’s capable of performing in big games. 
Forget about whether he’s a man, the man, THE MAN, or whatever else on the Heat. I’m not saying those aren’t legitimate concerns, because they are, and have been and will continue to be addressed on this website and many others.
All I’m asking is this: for however long it takes you to read this post, put aside your feelings about LeBron James, the man, and think of LeBron James as a basketball player. Because if you can compartmentalize LeBron’s off-court behavior and his on-court performance, you’ll find some things worth taking a look at.
For just a second, think of LeBron James as he is on the court. He’s walked away with the past two NBA MVP awards, and he may be the most dynamic talent to ever play NBA basketball. And after seven years in Cleveland, he’s going from a supporting cast made up of role players and fringe all-stars who only existed to support his gifts to playing with one MVP-caliber player, one All-NBA(maybe 2nd or 3rd team, but still) caliber player, and a series of highly capable role players surrounding the three of them. Forget LeBron’s legacy for just a minute: how will LeBron’s “superfriends” cause him to change his game? Let’s take a look at some of the potential differences in LeBron’s game next season:
Difference #1: More Lebron off the ball

Most people think that LeBron James will score less next season, but might average 10 assists per game/a triple-double because he’ll have better teammates to pass to. But consider the following: In the 2007 FIBA Qualifiers and 2008 Olympics combined, LeBron averaged .183 assists per minute while surrounded by the best players in basketball while playing against non-NBA competition. During the 2009-10 NBA season, LeBron averaged .221 assists per moment while playing with his teammates on the Cavaliers against other NBA teams. What did shoot up when LeBron was surrounded by elite talent was LeBron’s scoring efficiency: LeBron shot 65.4% from the field during his last two international stints, as compared to 50.3% over the course of the 09-10 season. 
For a long time, the conventional wisdom about LeBron has been the following: he’s darn good as he is, but he’d be unstoppable if he had a consistent jump shot. It’s true that LeBron becomes less stoppable with every improvement in his jump shot, but a consistent jump shot wouldn’t make him unstoppable. Why not? Since LeBron makes around 70% of his shots around the basket and 75-78% of his free throws, teams will always try to force him into taking long jumpers. And no player in the NBA makes over half of his long jumpers. Not one. When you consider that most NBA players take most of their long jumpers off of assists rather than off the dribble, it becomes even more apparent that LeBron will never be “unstoppable” in a one-on-one situation, because no perimeter player ever can be. 
Why do I mention this? Because when LeBron gets the ball on the weak side against a defense that isn’t loaded up against him, he’s as close to unstoppable as it gets. He’s 6-8, 260 pounds, his top speed is as fast as any other player’s, he can change directions at full speed, he’s completely ambidextrous around the basket, and he can change directions while going full steam. If he catches the ball in stride and the defense is looking somewhere else, they have no chance of stopping him. 
According to Synergy Sports, LeBron took 125 field goal attempts off of a “cut” last season, and converted 101 of those attempts. That’s an 81% conversion rate. That, folks, is the definition of unstoppable, and that’s how LeBron shot 65% from the field in international play. LeBron is great at scoring in isolation or pick-and-roll situations. He may be just as good at making plays for other in those situations. But he’s unquestionably at his most effective when he can build up a head of steam and attack the rim against a defense that isn’t waiting for him. 
If Wade and Bosh can put enough pressure on defenses next season to let LeBron spend significant chunks of game time lurking on the weak side and striking when one either Wade or Bosh demands the defense’s attention, his scoring/efficiency splits could look absolutely freakish — I’m talking about 25 PPG on 55% shooting from the field, or a 65-67% True Shooting Percentage. True Shooting% isn’t as sexy as averaging a triple-double, but making baskets while missing few of them is how teams win games. 
(PS — Don’t forget how good of a spot-up shooter LeBron can be. Because of the degree of difficulty on his three-point shots, LeBron has never had a great three-point percentage, but he’s a very good natural shooter who can be deadly when given time to set his feet. In the 2007 FIBA games/2008 Olympics, LeBron shot 36/65 from beyond the arc, a conversion rate of 55%. The international three-point line is shorter, but 65 threes is a significant sample size, and LeBron made over half of his threes in international play. LeBron off the ball is freaky, freaky stuff.) 
Difference #2: More playmaking from LeBron?

This will be interesting to see. There’s no doubt that LeBron has the ability to put up huge assist numbers if he’s trusted to be the primary playmaker — he averaged 10.5 assists per game in February, when Mo Willams was injured and LeBron was the de facto point guard for the Cavaliers. With Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mike Miller (the latter went 50-99 on “spot-up” threes last season) surrounding him, LeBron certainly has teammates more than capable of converting his assists. 
And with Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo, and Eddie House being the Heat’s point guards, LeBron will be relied as the primary playmaker for much of the time. I just wonder how things will shake out with LeBron and Wade as the playmakers; Wade may be as good or better than LeBron as a playmaker, and there’s no doubt that LeBron is Wade’s superior on the weak side. In short, LeBron could average a 10 APG with his new teammates, but it may not be in the Heat’s best interest to have him do so. And I’m not sure if LeBron is quite as stat-obsessed as Wilt Chamberlain was when Wilt passed up scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity because he decided he wanted to lead the league in assists. Also, don’t forget that the Cavs roster, while decidedly less talented than the Heat’s roster, was constructed of players who were supposed to be effective playing off of LeBron. 
Difference #3: More LeBron in the post?

This is another scenario that could go either way. On the one hand, Chris Bosh is a better post-up threat than LeBron has ever played with, and Wade initiating plays could mean less of James in the post. Additionally, LeBron needs to put in serious work on his footwork in the post to become as effective on the blocks as he is on the drive. 
In the past, LeBron spent his summers with Team USA or Cavaliers assistant coach Chris Jent working on his game. With LeBron’s free agency/Miami PR campaign this summer, he may not have put as much work into his game as he did in summers past, and his priority when he did work on his game may be assimilating his game with Bosh and Wade’s rather than adding new facets to his own. (At least LeBron postponed the filming of his scripted movie, which would have been a “decision”-level PR blunder.) 
On the other hand, there are two reasons why LeBron may go to his post game in Miami more than he did in Cleveland. First of all, Pat Riley and Mr. Wade likely have LeBron’s ear like no player, executive, or coach in Cleveland ever did. If they tell LeBron he needs to go to the post more, he’s more likely to listen to them than Mike Brown or Mo Williams. After all, Riley did coach Magic Johnson, who utilized the post game beautifully. That fact won’t be lost on LeBron. With LeBron’s size, strength, explosiveness, and ability to use either hand around the basket, he’s a dynamo in the post waiting to happen — he’s just never seen a compelling reason to make post-up scoring a primary element of his game. Part of that is on James’ lack of faith in his teammates’ ability to be effective if he got fronted in the post and the ball didn’t get to him, and part of that is on his own lack of post-up fundamentals. The former won’t be a problem in Miami, so we’ll see if he’s willing to work on the latter. 
Second of all, LeBron did post up a fair bit in Cleveland, but he preferred to wait for the double-team and pass instead of try to go all the way and score. His Cleveland teammates usually didn’t convert when LeBron kicked it out, but that could well change in Miami. If James forces a double-team in the post, it’ll be awfully tough to stop Bosh or Wade if James kicks it out to them. LeBron’s always had the ability to be one of the best post-up players in the NBA if he wanted to be, and that will be just as true in Miami as it was in Cleveland. 
Difference #4: More LeBron on the break

The glacial Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Shaquille O’Neal were the starting centers during LeBron’s seven years in Cleveland, and Mike Brown’s defensive system didn’t encourage the kind of gambling that leads to fast-break opportunities. Because of that, LeBron got to show of his almost unprecedented ability in the full-court rarely, although he was highly successful when the Cavaliers did get a fast-break opportunity. With Wade and Chalmers being two of the most successful defensive gamblers in the league, Bosh being a great athlete for a power forward, and the small but fast Joel Anthony likely to start at center for the Heat, Miami should be a smaller, more athletic, and faster team than any of LeBron’s Cleveland squads were. 
It’s open to debate whether a relatively small lineup is the best way to match up against teams like Orlando, Los Angeles, or Boston, but the Heat should be much “faster” and give LeBron more opportunities to get out on the break than he ever received in Cleveland, and that will be a good thing for the fans. 
Those are about all the differences I can think of for right now. LeBron and Wade will be one heck of a tandem on defense, but that’s a whole different post. Also, I originally thought LeBron would spend a lot more time at the four in Miami than he did in Cleveland, but with Bosh and Haslem both on the roster I doubt that’ll be the case. Say what you will about LeBron, but there’s no arguing that it’ll be interesting to see what LeBron’s game will look like alongside Wade and Bosh next season.

Report: Spurs signing LaMarcus Aldridge to two-year, $50 million contract extension

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From troubled to extended, LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Spurs tenure has changed directions in a hurry.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Piecing this together, Aldridge is exercising a $22,347,015 player option for 2018-19. That means his extension is worth $50 million over two years will carry him through age 35. All in all, Aldridge is now under contract for four more seasons.

Aldridge is a borderline All-Star, and he raises San Antonio’s floor. His back-to-the-bask mid-range games remains reliable, and he’s a willing defender. Him signing this deal should end pining for greener pastures, but it certainly won’t force him into diligent acceptance of his role forever. Players can become discontent whenever they please.

This extension significantly limits the Spurs flexibility the next two summers and maybe even in 2020, depending on Aldridge’s guarantee in the second year of his extension. They seem fine with that, perhaps believing they already have enough to topple the Warriors if Kawhi Leonard is healthy.

With Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Patty Mills all under contract for the few years around Leonard, San Antonio should remain stably good. But will these deals for aging veterans limit the Spurs’ ceiling? That’s the risk for an organization that has built its identity on championships and already has a young, in-his-prime superstar who has proven capable of being the best player on a title team.

Hawks: Dennis Schroder will face discipline for physical altercation

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Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder was arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge a couple weeks ago.

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk in a statement:

“There is an ongoing investigation into the details of the incident involving Dennis Schröder that occurred on Sept. 29th. During this process, we plan to support Dennis as we would any of our players working through a situation.

However, from our preliminary findings, we are aware that Dennis was involved in a physical altercation. That behavior is unacceptable, will not be tolerated by the Hawks organization, and will result in discipline for Dennis at the appropriate time once the matter has been more fully developed through the law enforcement process and otherwise.

Dennis has accepted responsibility for his actions. He looks forward to learning from this incident and focusing on the season.”

On one hand, it’s odd that the Hawks are both deferring to the process and pledging discipline. On the other hand, teams should more often make their own judgments on how to handle these issues than blindly rely on the legal system.

This statement is intentionally vague, and it gives the Hawks wide latitude in how to proceed. Eventually – likely dependent on legal outcomes – they’ll reveal Schroder’s punishment.

NBA season predictions: Who wins East? West? NBA Finals?

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Tuesday the NBA marathon begins, and it will run until June with 1,230 regular season games and what the league hopes are a more intense, contested playoffs than last season.

Which will probably all end with the Warriors and the Cavaliers in the Finals. Again. For the fourth year in a row.

We’ve already given you our awards predictions for the coming season, now here are the NBC Sports NBA staff’s picks for the NBA standings and playoffs.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Bucks
5. Raptors
6. Heat
7. Hornets
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

It is possible Boston (or even Washington, if their starting five stays healthy and you like longshots) outpace Cleveland in the regular season, but come the playoffs a healthy Cleveland team will be the clear best team. I think the Raptors take a step back due to lost depth (and the Bucks are improving). I have the Sixers slipping into the playoffs but if Reggie Jackson returns to form Detroit could nab that spot.

Dan Feldman:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Hornets
7. Heat
8. 76ers
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Celtics

The Cavaliers and Celtics are in one tier, Wizards and Raptors in another and Bucks, Hornets and Heat in a third. The 76ers share the fourth tier with the Pistons, and I’m predicting Joel Embiid will be just healthy enough to get Philadelphia into the playoffs — but that’s a huge unknown.

Dane Carbaugh:
1. Cavaliers
2. Celtics
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Bucks
6. Heat
7. Pacers
8. Pistons
Eastern Conference Finals: Cavaliers over Wizards

Even though the Celtics added Irving to their roster they still have a lack of depth after trading both Crowder and Bradley. They will be relying on their young players to come through in playoff time, and it’s more reasonable to think that will happen in the coming seasons. The Cavaliers are still the team to beat and it doesn’t feel like the Wizards will have enough to get past them.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Kurt Helin:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Clippers
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Thunder

Is Golden State going to win more than 70 games? The Warriors are at the top, then you can put the Rockets/Thunder/Spurs in any order and I would buy it (although the Kawhi Leonard injury to start the season leads to San Antonio questions). The final three spots will come down to the Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, and Jazz and the teams that get the slots will be the ones that stay healthy.

Dan Feldman:
1. Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Thunder
4. Spurs
5. Timberwolves
6. Nuggets
7. Jazz
8. Trail Blazers
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

It’s obviously the Warriors then everyone else. The Rockets, Thunder, and Spurs are the most serious challengers. The Timberwolves and Nuggets are up-and-comers. The next tier — which also includes the Clippers and maybe Pelicans — could see an incredibly competitive race just to make the playoffs.

Dane Carbaugh:
1.Warriors
2. Rockets
3. Spurs
4. Thunder
5. Wolves
6. Clippers
7. Blazers
8. Jazz
Western Conference Finals: Warriors over Rockets

I think we all want this series to happen if only because it will give us an inclination of what it’s like to watch a Mike D’Antoni team adapt on offense to an opponent he has all year to scout. Still, the question for most teams out West will be whether they can match the Warriors on both sides of the ball. People somehow forget that Golden State is typically a Top 5 defensive team. I’m not sure anybody can really match that.

NBA FINALS

KURT: Warriors over Cavaliers
DAN: Warriors over Cavaliers
DANE: Warriors over Cavaliers

It’s boring, we know. All three of us — and most of the rest of the NBA universe — picking a fourth straight meeting between the Golden State and Cleveland. But how do you not? If they are both healthy this seems inevitable. No team in the NBA is on the Warriors level. Boston doesn’t have the defense, Washington doesn’t have the depth to challenge the Cavaliers in the East. Things happen, the NBA rarely follows the script, but it’s hard not to envision this outcome.

Report: Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge discussing contract extension

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The Spurs have won 128 games and three playoff series and LaMarcus Aldridge has made an All-NBA third team and an All-Star team during his two years in San Antonio.

But neither side has seemed completely satisfied with their relationship.

Maybe the solution is more time?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Though today is the deadline for rookie-scale contract extensions and extensions for veterans with multiple years remaining on their current contracts, it’s not a significant date for Aldridge. He’s under contract for $21,461,010 this season and holds a $22,347,015 player option for next season.

Today is the last day Aldridge sign an extension in conjunction with opting in, but if the Spurs and Aldridge want him to earn $22,347,015  in 2018-19, they could make that his salary in the first year of an extension signed in conjunction with him opting out. Effectively, any terms Aldridge and San Antonio could reach now, they could reach through June 30.

The largest allowable extension is four years, $115,374,390. It’s not a given the Spurs would offer the 32-year-old that much, but they clearly value veteran stability over flexibility.